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Says Ott, "Any artform succeeds on its ability to create a community." And for more than 20 years Mt. Airy resident Ott has been attempting to help poetry succeed by fostering community through his writing, his publishing company, and his work with community arts organizations. Ott, 48, does trace that interest to the tension between isolation and community he felt as a young man who became interested in poetry in the 1970s after experimenting with other art forms, particularly painting. He settled on poetry, he says, because "It was important to me to have something very personal and portable." "Initially my need - the basic need of probably the majority of writers and poets - was self-expression," he continues. "Secondly would be the need to be part of a community because self expression goes nowhere if you're not involved with others. So my life as a poet has been to play off those two factors."
It was that interplay that led him to found his own literary press, Running Horse Press, as a way of, again, creating a sense of community. Explains Ott, "As a writer I felt very isolated. I didn't go the route that a lot of people go, which is to join workshops or go to school for it. I was more into sort of a community, organizing aspect of it. He began in 1976 with a small Poetry magazine, Paper Air. I gave it the name Paper Air because I originally wanted to print it like the American Poetry Review, in newspaper format. I imagined myself standing on a street corner shouting 'Air Paper Air Paper Air Paper!'" he laughs. "And I wanted something that was really accessible, that would be cheap, say, 50 cents or something."
While the economics involved defeated that vision - "you need millions of copies to make that possible," Ott says - he did continue to publish Paper Air in magazine format for 14 years. Running Horse Press is still in existence after more than 20 years, which makes it one of the more enduring small presses in the area. "I have many conversations with young people who want to start magazines," says Ott. "The thing that people think of is publishing. They want to design and publish books. They don't think about distribution. And that's where you make your community and your commitment ... I have this obsessive, compulsive side that maintains mailing lists, that sends out bills to book stores, that designs little advertisements and flyers… it's not the glamorous side of publishing, but it keeps it going."
Running Horse Press has published 19 books of poetry, most recently Drunkard Boxing by Philadelphia poet Linh Dinh. It's the first in a series of works to be published annually by Running Horse as part of Ott's new Philadelphia Publishing Project. The project is designed to showcase the works of area writers who have had little exposure so far; for $25, charter subscribers will receive copies of Drunkard Boxing as well as the next two works in the series. Even for an established publisher like Running Horse, publishing poetry is not a way to fame and riches. I used to say that the audience for a book was 300 people," says Ott. His profession for most the past twenty years has been as fundraiser, first for the Painted Bride Art Center for which he also worked in creating community based arts and educational networks. He is now Director of Development for Liberty Resources, a consumer-run advocacy organization for people with disabilities.
According to Ott, his work in the arts has given him cross-over skills when it comes to fundraising. "I can write and I can speak well and I like to synthesize, I like to put different people together …just basic things. The funny thing about being a writer is that people don't really respect it until they have to do it or they need it." Ott has had eleven volumes of his own poetry published, with a twelfth due shortly. While he calls himself an avant garde poet - "for many years the only one in Philadelphia," he says - for him poetry isn't an esoteric practice reserved for an elite. Instead, it's one of the most basic ways that people express themselves, and a vital way that language continues to grow and evolve. "If you take an expansive definition of what poetry is," he says, "poetry is all around us. Rap music is poetry, advertising is full of poetry. I tend to take not quite that expansive a view of poetry, but I do consider the many, many branches and streams of poetry that exist as legitimate."
In the last five years or so he has branched out into writing fiction, primarily short stories. He'll be presenting a selection of his work this weekend at the Sedgwick Cultural Center. Says Ott, "I'll be reading some of my fictional pieces, and some of my performative poetry that I've been writing recently. An adjective or two that I would use to characterize the fictional pieces would be 'strange,' 'alienating,' a little weird. The poetry pieces have to do struggle and personal depth - it's hard to characterize them.
"Poetry and music are the two most fundamental arts," he says. They're things that people do before they speak… Poetry to me is the place where people make language. It's how I, at almost the 21st century, can continue to participate in creating the English language. It's language as an on-going thing.
Gil Ott will be appearing at the Sedgwick Cultural Center, 7137 Germantown Avenue, on Sunday, October 25 at 7 p.m. as part of the Meridian Writers Coop series. For information, call 248-9229.